Ad­min­is­tra­tion restoring as­set seizures, with new safe­guards

For­fei­ture laws were cur­tailed un­der Obama, in­tend­ing to pre­vent abuse

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Sadie Gurman

WASH­ING­TON» The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will soon re­store the abil­ity of po­lice to seize sus­pects’ money and prop­erty with fed­eral help, but The As­so­ci­ated Press has learned the pol­icy will come with a se­ries of new pro­vi­sions aimed at pre­vent­ing the types of abuse that led the Obama Jus­tice Depart­ment to se­verely cur­tail the prac­tice.

At is­sue is as­set for­fei­ture, which has been crit­i­cized be­cause it al­lows law en­force­ment to take pos­ses­sions without crim­i­nal con­vic­tions or, in some cases, in­dict­ments. The pol­icy to be rolled out Wed­nes­day tar­gets so­called adop­tive for­fei­ture, which lets lo­cal au­thor­i­ties cir­cum­vent more-re­stric­tive state laws to seize prop­erty un­der fed­eral law. The pro­ceeds are then shared with fed­eral coun­ter­parts.

For­mer At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder sig­nif­i­cantly limited the prac­tice in re­sponse to crit­i­cism that it was ripe for abuse, par­tic­u­larly with po­lice seizures of small amounts of cash. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions plans to ease those restric­tions but also im­pose new re­quire­ments on when fed­eral law can be used, a se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial briefed on the pol­icy said Tues­day.

The of­fi­cial, who spoke to the AP on con­di­tion of anonymity, was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the changes be­fore their un­veil­ing.

Key changes in­clude re­quir­ing more de­tail from po­lice agen­cies about prob­a­ble cause jus­ti­fy­ing a seizure be­fore fed­eral au­thor­i­ties get in­volved. Also, the Jus­tice Depart­ment will have to de­cide more quickly whether to take on lo­cal seizures and let prop­erty own­ers know their rights and the sta­tus of their be­long­ings within 45 days of the seizure, faster than fed­eral law re­quires.

An­other key change will make it harder for po­lice to seize less than $10,000 un­less they have a state war­rant, have made an ar­rest re­lated to the seizure, have taken other con­tra­band, such as drugs, along with the money or the owner has con­fessed to a crime. Without at least one of those con­di­tions, au­thor­i­ties will need a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor’s ap­proval to seize it un­der fed­eral law.

Old rules set that thresh­old at $5,000, the of­fi­cial said. The old process rarely re­quired a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor’s sign-off, said Ste­fan Cas­sella, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor and ex­pert on as­set for­fei­ture and money laun­der­ing law.

Ses­sions’ sup­port for as­set for­fei­ture more is in keep­ing with his tough-on­crime agenda and aligns with his oft-stated view that the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s top pri­or­ity should be help­ing lo­cal law en­force­ment fight vi­o­lent crime. Po­lice de­part­ments use the seizures for ex­penses, and some agen­cies felt Holder’s restric­tions left them without a crit­i­cal fund­ing source. When he fore­cast the roll­back of the Holder pro­vi­sion at a con­fer­ence of dis­trict at­tor­neys, the an­nounce­ment drew ap­plause.

But an em­brace of as­set for­fei­ture fol­lows bi­par­ti­san ef­forts to over­haul the prac­tice, and as a grow­ing num­ber of states have made their own laws lim­it­ing its use.

Repub­li­can Rep. Dar­rell Issa of Cal­i­for­nia, who spon­sored leg­is­la­tion this year to tightly reg­u­late as­set for­fei­ture, said Ses­sions’ move is “a trou­bling step back­ward” that would “bring back a loop­hole that’s become one of the most fla­grantly abused pro­vi­sions of this pol­icy.”

“Crim­i­nals shouldn’t be able to keep the pro­ceeds of their crime, but in­no­cent Amer­i­cans shouldn’t lose their right to due process, or their pri­vate prop­erty rights, in or­der to make that hap­pen,” he said.

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